Franklin Vlei is a large, complex wetland that has several areas of significance. The first of these is Vogelvlei, which is comparatively undisturbed. It is not burned annually and normally has moderate grazing pressure. Depending on the amount of rain, the area may be moist or flooded up to 1 m in depth. A channel and associated pools are more deeply flooded and provide open water patches for most of the year. In the most deeply flooded areas the dominant vegetation is extensive beds of Typha and Phragmites, whereas in permanently shallowly flooded to saturated ground large sedges, most notably Carex species, dominate. In seasonally wet peripheral areas, sedge meadow communities exist, grading into hygrophilous grassland. There are also a number of ditches and pools.
The second significant area is the causeway that crosses a wet zone of the vlei near Franklin village. This zone was created after the main channel became blocked by debris following floods in 1959; proposals to reduce the water level have been a source of controversy ever since. The area adjacent to the causeway is permanently flooded and contains very large beds of Typha; large stands of Phragmites (mostly along the river channels); much floating and emergent grass, with many patches of open water that are often secluded; and areas of tall flooded sedges and grass on moist to wet ground at the edges of the wetland.
The Llewellyn area is an arm of the main Franklin Vlei and has similar vegetation to most other areas of the main wetland. Much of it is heavily grazed and most is burned annually, so that rallid habitat is restricted. Nevertheless, there are patches of taller, denser vegetation along channels in deeply flooded areas and at the wetland's edges.
Rheboksfontein has extensive beds of almost monospecific Carex species; stands of Phragmites and Typha in its more deeply flooded areas; excellent mixed sedges and, in wet areas, smaller sedges; and hygrophilous grasses towards its periphery. There is a large area of old Eragrostis hay fields adjacent to the vlei that have not been mowed for several years and have developed an excellent cover of mixed grass and forbs. The presence of well-developed, fringing grassland adjacent to plant-species-rich sedge meadow and hygrophilous grassland is unique in the area and of great potential for rallids.
Flitwick Grange has a large central area of Carex species, with mixed sedge beds and fringing mixed tussocky sedges, Juncus and grasses. Its periphery is heavily grazed, but its central regions are largely undisturbed. There is some Typha at the vlei's inlet and outlet streams.
Holwell is a much-degraded wetland, dominated by grass and short sedge species, that has been partially drained by the digging of a furrow along its centre. It is grazed and quite frequently burned.
The Ruswarp area is predominantly moist grassland, with sedge meadow in wetter depressions, along the Mzintlava River. It is heavily grazed by sheep over much of its area, frequently burned and has some poplar plantations near the river.
Hebron is largely protected and has excellent beds of Carex species, stands of Typha and Phragmites along stream channels, and areas of mixed sedges and hygrophilous grasses.
The Franklin Vlei System has the largest known (i.e. properly counted/estimated) White-winged Flufftail Sarothrura ayresi population in South Africa. The flufftails inhabit the Carex-dominated areas and the taller vegetation at Vogelvlei. However, the current status of this species is not well known since the last confirmed sightings occurred more than 15 years ago. Red-chested Flufftail S. rufa is present throughout the more shallowly flooded edge habitats, while Baillon’s Crake Porzana pusilla is locally numerous in years of suitable flooding conditions. Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris is regular at the site and the Palearctic race of Little Bittern Ixobrychus minutus is regularly recorded from Vogelvlei and other sections of Franklin Vlei.
In summer, when the vlei is shallowly flooded, White Storks Ciconia ciconia roost at Vogelvlei (1 500 were counted in January 1996), probably representing a large part of this bird’s East Griqualand population. Many remain to feed at Vogelvlei during the day, the remainder dispersing to other parts of the wetland system. Five or six pairs of Wattled Crane Bugeranus carunculatus breed here, three of which nest in the Hebron wetlands. The vegetation is too short and sparse over most of the area to support many rallids, although the listed wetland species are found in pockets of suitable cover. Corn Crake Crex crex occurs in hygrophilous grassland at the edge of the wetland, especially in years when patches of moist mixed grassland are allowed to develop without disturbance.
Globally threatened species are White-winged Flufftail and Wattled Crane, with 5–6 breeding pairs of the latter occurring. Grey Crowned Crane Balearica regulorum also breeds and roosts in the IBA. Regionally threatened birds include species such as African Grass Owl Tyto capensis and African Marsh Harrier Circus ranivorus.
The endangered long-toed tree frog Leptopelis xenodactylus is known to occur, as well as the endemic striped caco Cacosternum striatum. A number of rare and endangered plants occur, including Dierama tysonii. Oribi Ourebia oureb may be found in the surrounding grasslands.
This is one of the few sites in the world where White-winged Flufftail is known to occur. It also hosts one of the most important breeding populations of Wattled Crane in KwaZulu-Natal. The vlei is mostly under private ownership. For many years the Franklin Vlei System has been subjected to virtually uncontrolled modification, damage and abuse. It is rated as one of the priority wetlands of KwaZulu-Natal, with important functional values for water storage, stream-flow regulation, flood attenuation, sediment trapping, waste assimilation and wildlife protection. Its importance to conservation cannot be over-emphasised. It is a prime example of a palustrine wetland system. The vlei system urgently requires long-term protection as well as an integrated management plan for the whole Franklin catchment area.
Factors adversely affecting Franklin Vlei at present are the drowning of large wetland areas by building dams; reducing inflow to the vlei by damming tributary streams and not releasing sufficient water from dams at the right times of the year; wasteful irrigation, including centre pivots; the digging of boreholes; annual burning and spring grazing of large sections of the palustrine wetland vegetation; and the uncontrolled spread of invasive wattles along the Mzintlava River and in the adjacent veld.
Most of the IBA is unprotected, but the owners of the Hebron section are pursuing Biodiversity Stewardship, facilitated by EWT.
Begg GW. 1989. The wetlands of Natal (Part 3). The location, status and function of the priority wetlands of Natal. Natal Town and Regional Planning Report No. 73. Pietermaritzburg: Natal Town & Regional Planning Commission.
Taylor PB. 1994. The biology, ecology and conservation of four flufftail species, Sarothrura (Aves: Rallidae). PhD thesis. University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.
Taylor PB. 1995. Proposed afforestation in the Mzintlanga and Mzintlava catchments, Franklin–Swartberg area, East Griqualand. Environmental impact assessment on the flora and fauna of the affected areas. Unpublished report. Pietermaritzburg.
Taylor PB. 1997a. The status and conservation of rallids in South Africa: results of a wetland survey in 1995/96. Avian Demography Unit Research Report No. 23. Cape Town: University of Cape Town.
Taylor PB. 1997b. South African palustrine wetlands: the results of a survey in the summer 1995/96. Avian Demography Unit Research Report No. 24. Cape Town: University of Cape Town.